Dornsturm Castle: A Tale from the NorthlandsBy Harriet F. Thackery
Part One: The Storm and the Tower
There are many secrets in the Northlands. Cloaked by time, war and the soft layer of snow that eventually buries the mightiest of castles, secrets lurk through ancient forests and icy peaks. The local vermin have their own verbal tradition of storytelling, something we wildcats often ignore. At first I assumed the ragged old stoats and snow swept rats were spinning foolish tales to entertain me, the stranger passing through their midst. Yet the remarkable consistency of details between the stories, and the evidence I found at Castle Dornsturm itself lead me to believe the tales have a great deal of historical truth; a truth that was lost to us the night of the fire.
My curiosity about Castle Dornsturm and all that happened there was first piqued when I became lost in a snowstorm. Foolishly staggering along a ridge, blinded by snow, I fell hard and became completely disoriented. I counted myself lucky that I had not been dashed against the rocks, and resolved to wait out the blizzard. As I lay on the slopes, clinging desperately to my furs for warmth, a sudden gust of with parted the fog for a few moments. In those precious seconds, I glimpsed high above me the unmistakable silhouette of a castle's tower hidden amongst the mountains.
It could have been hours before my slaves found me and dragged my half-frozen body back to the family manor. I had passed into unconsciousness, but my dreams were filled with cold, ancient halls and whispered voices. Indeed, as I lay on the rug before the warm, crackling fire, I started to wonder if I had seen any such tower, and if there really had been a castle in the mountain range. Yet something told me that it had been no dream, nor even a trick of the light. I had seen something, perhaps a relic of the past not visited by wildcat or vermin in a hundred seasons.
Part Two: The Library and the Scroll
When I had recovered from my ordeal, I headed at once to the library. Our family has kept records of this land for centuries. If some obscure baron had built himself a secluded retreat in the mountains, there was bound to be some mention of it in our history. I pored through land records well into the night, barely eating what the slaves brought. It was hard to search for a record of such a vague memory. I had no names to look for, nor dates, just the location; the Dorner Mountains.
I drifted off several times that night, but I remember waking some time past midnight. The candles had burned low, and at first I thought I was still dreaming. As my paws brushed against the rows of books and scrolls on the shelves, I felt as if an invisible paw was holding me, an unseen mouth whispering in my ear. The scroll I pulled out was a tiny, dusty slip of paper, and as I returned to my reading chair, I wondered how I had picked it out amongst all the other scrolls and tomes.
I unfurled the scroll, and peered at the faded, spidery black writing. It appeared to be the minutes taken from a weekly meeting of nobles, dated hundreds of seasons ago. Most of the scribbling was uninteresting to me, and I idly wondered why the document had been preserved for so long. Yet towards the bottom, a particular note caught my eye. It wasn't very long, but its contents were the first solid lead I had. It read simply:
"The superstitious vermin of the Dorner Mountains area came before Duke Larkspur's court two days ago and spoke of an unnatural light that blazed in the mist the previous night. To avoid unrest in the slave community, His Lordship sent a search party, which reported that a fire had consumed Castle Dornsturm, and this was presumably the source of the disturbance. The search found no remains of the much-maligned clan Dornsturm, their bloodline is presumed ended forever."
The note was strange to say the least. The destruction of entire noble family of wildcats seemed barely important enough to merit a few sentences in an obscure record-keeper's scroll. I felt the writer must have had some reluctance to even mention the event. A clue was revealed to me in the text; it said the Dornsturms were 'much maligned'. What had they done that warranted such hatred? I for one had never even heard their name. Exhausted after this discovery, I fell asleep in my chair.
Part Three: The Village of Anhalt
I rose the next day full of confidence and vigour. At last, I had a name to search for, the elusive Castle Dornsturm, and a rough time period the family may have existed. I read in the library all day, frightening the slave that usually came in to sweep the floors. It was like finding gems in the sand; the name would only jump out at me every few hours. Even then, there was a frustrating lack of detail. I gathered the family of Dornsturm had married into us Larkspurs a few times, but otherwise kept themselves mostly out of our affairs.
Their family castle had been built in a treacherous part of the Dorner Mountains to be well-defended against wolverine attacks. Many vermin slaves had fallen off the sheer cliffs to their deaths on the jagged rocks, as they had hauled massive blocks of stone from a quarry at the foot of the giant mountains. Built on the blood and tears of the slaves, Castle Dornsturm was to be an imposing, impregnable fortress of luxury and solitude.
These official records painted a very vague picture of the life of this mysterious family. Growing impatient with reading, and having something of a headache, I left the manor and resolved to travel back to the Dorner Mountains. The mountain range is usually covered by mist that condenses as it flows up the steep slopes. Yet the village of Anhalt is within a day's walk of my manor.
The village sits in the shadow of the snowy peaks, inhabited by the vermin miners belonging to my family. There's a seam of precious stones under the mountains, which is probably what drew the first wildcats to the area many seasons ago. The vermin do not often see wildcats, let alone the Duke of Larkspur wandering into the village. I must have frightened a few of them, but many of the miners were all too eager to pass on what their grandfathers had heard from yet even more distant ancestors. When I first mentioned the name Dornsturm, the reactions of the vermin were either to make excuses to leave my presence, or eagerly crowd around to tell their stories.
Part Four: The Last Days
The story of the last days of the clan of Dornsturm was told to me by many individual vermin that I met at Anhalt over the course of a few days. This had evidently been a favourite ghost story amongst vermin families for generations, and I shall do my best to transcribe it to the written word for the first time in wildcat history:
The tale begins in the Season of the Third-Born, so named because Lady Dornsturm gave birth to her third child in the spring. The kitten was named Ameki, after his great-uncle. Baron Dornsturm already had two sons, Redrick and Alois. The kitten was adored and doted upon by his parents, and even managed to melt the hearts of even his boisterous brothers.
Such was Ameki's blue-eyed charm and sweet smile that even his childish misbehaviours were looked upon as adorable and harmless. Stolen treats from the kitchens merely amused the family, and pulling the whiskers of his nurses then hiding in the attic went unpunished. As Redrick was preparing to become a warrior like his father, Ameki's life was comparatively undisciplined. He grew into a handsome, well-dressed young tom, used to getting his way.
When his father became ill, young Ameki grew afraid. If his father died, Redrick might throw him out of the family castle, as the castle would then belong to the firstborn son. To avoid this shame, Ameki ran away from home in an ill-founded attempt to seek his fortune elsewhere. He was tracked down by his brothers, starved, cold and lost. They took their brother back to the castle, where the old Duke lay on his deathbed.
By the time Ameki recovered from his unsuccessful venture into the wilderness, his father had died. The youngest Dornsturm was inconsolable. His family plied him with treats, gifts and affection to stop his tears. Redrick comforted his brother, saying he would never let Ameki out into the cold, cruel Northlands again. He could live safely in the castle all his days, in luxury and happiness.
Their devotion to him became an obsession. Ameki's charms and wiles, and the odd sobbing fit meant that pleasing the young wildcat became the only thing anybeast in the castle had time for. Letters went unanswered, gatherings of nobles went unattended. The Dornsturms all but disappeared from public view, as Ameki demanded their time and attention by day and night.
Something had changed within Ameki. He grew to rule the way the castle was run, and his word was enforced by his stern mother and his easily swayed brother Redrick. The slaves began to refer only to Ameki as 'Lord' and the few visitors to the castle were instructed to bow before him and kiss his paw, which was often covered with claw rings and bracelets.
Ameki himself seemed to be going mad, ordering lavish feasts one day then only bread and water the next. He would tear down their family's portraits and run his claws through the precious canvases, then weep and writhe on the floor of the Great Hall, in full view of the shocked slaves. At night he would creep through the halls, and end up falling sleep hidden in the attics or the cellars. Rumours of the family's growing insanity spread, and soon Castle Dornsturm's gates were permanently closed.
The only beast that saw through Ameki's spell was Alois. The middle brother had tried reasoning with Redrick, trying to persuade him that Ameki was ruining their reputation, and their lives. When Ameki found out, he declared Alois was trying to take the castle for himself, and had his brother imprisoned in the dungeon.
Yet the damage was already done. Alois' words stayed with Redrick, and the eldest wildcat began to question Ameki's behaviour. Redrick had loved his baby brother most of all, yet even he too was beginning to see that Ameki cared for nobeast but himself. His self-absorption, his insanity and their seclusion from the outside world was leading the clan's name into disrepute.
One night, Redrick stole down to the dungeons and freed Alois. The two plotted to take Ameki by surprise before he could call any guards, and dispose of him quietly by throwing him off the steep precipice next to the castle wall, the same way so many slaves had died during the castle's construction. Yet they had not anticipated their mad brother prowling the cold, dark halls of the castle at night, whispering and cackling to himself. Ameki had crept into the dungeons and heard the murderous plans of his brothers. Enraged, he called for the guards. Yet when the captain of the guards came, he refused to slay Redrick or Alois on Ameki's orders.
Ameki realised his days as the overlord of Castle Dornsturm were over. Deciding that if he could not have what he wanted, then nobeast could, Ameki escaped the dungeons and set about destroying his family's castle. He started with burning the ancient, invaluable tapestries that told of the deeds of the Dornsturm family for generations. He pulled burning logs straight from the fireplaces and threw them onto the oak dinner tables of the great hall, the finely crafted furniture becoming mere fuel for the inferno. Ameki left destruction in his wake that night, wildly smashing every plate and bowl in the kitchens, hurling the elegantly made chairs and marble busts of his family members through the windows.
The fires reached the library, and the castle's halls began to fill with smoke. Ameki put on his finest gold-laced cloak and swept his way to the master bedroom at the top of the castle's mighty tower. Redrick and Alois tried to escape, but the way out was blocked by the intense heat. The fires swept through the castle, the heat and sparks even reaching Ameki's tower. The screams of the slaves and the trapped family could be heard throughout the mountain ranges, but the loudest sound of all was Ameki's shrieking laughter as he was consumed by the flames.
A few wildcats came to inspect the castle after the light and noise was reported by the locals, but nobeast ever visited again. The intensity of the heat had destroyed much of value, and the castle itself was unstable and dangerous to reach, making scrounging for the Dornsturm's fortune of jewels barely worth the risk. The local miners swore they could still hear Ameki's laughter some nights, and it was said that if you went up to the castle at night, you might catch a glimpse of the mad wildcat's spirit wandering the halls.
The story is often told at night, preferably in view of the mountains, so the listeners may gaze up at the ragged rocks with a nervous shiver as the tale unfolds. Whilst this was the most revealing account I had heard about the castle and its occupants, it left me with yet more questions. It seemed to me the Ameki that the two brothers brought back to the castle was different from the one that had left. He had gone from a likable, if uncontrollable young tom to a manipulative madbeast. What had changed in him? And more curious still, how had he warped the minds of his family to obey his every whim?
When I asked these questions of the vermin, most shrugged their shoulders. Some thought it was merely Ameki's stunning charisma. Others proposed he slipped them a poison or drug that weakened their minds, and somehow managed to poison himself with them. The story itself was said to come from the few vermin slaves that had escaped the fire. It was clear the tales of the slaves ended here. If I wanted to find out more, I knew I would have to visit Castle Dornsturm itself.
Part Five: The Investigation Begins
I journeyed to the castle in the morning, keen to investigate during the daylight hours as much as possible. I was hesitant about staying a night in the place, I admit. I am not usually one for ghost stories, but then again, I hadn't believed a castle existed here at all only a few days ago. Besides, what wildcat wanted to spend a night in a burned-out building that was also a grave?
The hike through the mountain path was treacherous, one wrong step and I could have tumbled off into the abyss like so many others. No wonder the place had few visitors even at the best of times. The directions the vermin had given me were vague, but every so often there was a hint that I was on the right track. Old weathered stones and rubble suggested that once there had been gatehouses and walls defending this meagre path to the castle. The tower I had seen was invisible at first, still shrouded by the morning mist. As I grew nearer though, the tower's form began to take shape, looming dark over my head. I shivered, as I imagined Ameki dressing in his finest cloak and lying on the master bed, waiting to die with a gleeful laugh.
Before I knew it, the mist had cleared and I was standing before the main gates of Castle Dornsturm. I was ill-prepared for the sight, to say the least. The castle was built for intimidation, an opulent yet stern design with spiked towers, and gargoyle statues lurking between the pillars. The windows were tall and thin, the glass panes long since destroyed. There were holes in the tiled roofs, and the doors to the entrance hall were gone, leaving a dark, yawning gap. The arched doorways and windows were blackened by soot. The evidence of the fire seemed as stark and obvious as if the place had conflagrated only last night, instead of hundreds of seasons ago.
At first it seemed there was little left to examine. The great hall was little more than an empty room with sooty walls and a floor covered in ashes. It was hardly the grand setting for a noble family. Yet on closer inspection there were clues as to its opulence, hidden beneath the ashes and the snow that had blown in. What appeared to be dusty splotches on the floor were actually puddles of melted gold, silver, pewter, and bronze. Decorations, candle-holders, cutlery and even some ceremonial weaponry had obviously once lined the hall and made it a splendid sight. I found the rusty remains of a blade at the far end of the hall, all that was left of an ornamental sword that had hung over the fireplace.
Yet my real curiosity was not in the gold the Dornsturms had left behind. I was eager, and admittedly nervous about ascending the stone staircase up the tower. I grew more uneasy as I ventured down the hallway to the stairs. It was darker in here, despite the patches of light that shone through the windows. What was I expecting to find? Ameki's body? Perhaps his spirit even now would appear before me, grinning madly at his uninvited guest. I shuddered, and quickened my pace to the stairs.
The stairs twisted up the tower, shafts of dim light coming through the slits in the walls. It was a defensive design, allowing archers to shoot out at a presumed wolverine attack. The castle's defences had never been tested before it was abandoned. I reached the top, and peeked through the doorway to the master bedroom.
The room was lit through a gap in the roof, a beam of light revealing the motes of dust as my presence disturbed the air. Though the bed itself had burned, it was easy to see how grand it had been, taking up a good part of the room. In fact, the patches of ash gave me a good idea of where the dressing tables, cupboards and drawers had stood. There was a balcony at the far end of the room, which looked out over the castle grounds.
I stepped cautiously as I went to examine the view from the balcony. Perhaps Ameki had not lain on the bed as I had imagined. Maybe at the very end he had stood on the balcony, trying to escape the heat. Perhaps he had been laughing as he watched his slaves fleeing the castle like ants below him.
I thought the tower held no more secrets, until I found the tooth. It was bluish-black, and at first I thought it was just a piece of burnt wood. As I looked closer at the object in my paw, I realised with a chill that I was holding one of Ameki's fangs. They had said he smiled sweetly. It almost moved me to tears, holding his tooth. How had such an innocent life turned so dark?
By the time my searching was done, a storm was rolling in, and I knew attempting the mountain path back was a sure way to get killed. I was stuck in Castle Dornsturm for the night, on my own. I decided to pitch my tent in the inner family room, which was cosier than the draughty great hall, and had no windows exposing me to the elements. I expected the castle to make night noises, bumps and creaks. Yet as I settled in my furs, the castle became eerily silent. Its silence was enough to keep me awake, listening for any movement. I waited for what seemed hours, but with no ghosts prowling the halls, I eventually drifted off, and began to dream.
Part Six: The Dream of the Past
After I had stopped weeping over my father's body, there was silence. I did not speak to the slaves when they brought food, and I left the meals untouched. I would not see my mother, or my brothers. No matter where I went in the castle, I could smell the scent of my father. He was in the great hall, in the library, even in our bedrooms kissing us goodnight. I grew to hate the decor of this miserable place. Just living here reminded me of him every day.
I spoke to Redrick after a month. It was a quiet conversation in his chambers, where mother could not spy on me. She had become far too watchful over my movements, many of my slaves reported to her. I told Redrick of this, and how my grief would not leave with my father's memory so pervasive in this place. He embraced me and promised he would do all in his power to let me smile and be merry again.
I watched them take down father's portrait, and stored it in the attic. His personal coat of arms, his armour, his sword and his shield were all moved into that dusty, dark space where I would not see them. His bedroom was refurnished, all his old furniture was moved out of the tower. I took up residence there myself; I needed space away from the bustle of the castle below. I was sick of hearing footsteps on the landing outside my room, knowing the slaves would eavesdrop on me. The castle was cleaned, the walls freshly painted, and the last belongings of my father safely secreted away.
My life was better for a time, but all too soon I found myself spiralling deep into the pits of my depression. Some days I felt ravenous, other days I could not stomach a single morsel of food. I lost weight, and my mind constantly swirled in confusion. I could not focus on my books, so I left them unread. Music gave me no pleasure, so I did not play upon any of our instruments. Worse still, my apathy towards the joys of life seemed to be contagious; my brothers were often as listless as I was.
Fits of emotion brought me to destructive behaviour. I started seeing my father in every portrait of our ancestors; I tore them from the walls and shredded the canvases with my claws. At other times I thought I was my father; I would dress in my finest silk clothes and bark orders at the slaves. My memory would fail me; I would speak to Redrick on some important matter then forget. I could lie in my bed all night and not fall asleep; I resorted to wandering the halls at night, tired and worn, yet not collapsing into my dreams for days at a time.
I pass a mirror now, and I turn to see myself with a shudder. My squinting eyes are red from lack of sleep. The face that looked so handsome before father's death now looks sick and gaunt. I bare my teeth, my fangs are a bluish-black...
Part Seven: The Descent into the Dungeons
I awoke with a gasp, the image of Ameki's hideously blackened teeth still fresh in my mind's eye. My head was throbbing, and I winced, putting my paws up to rub my temples. It was pitch-black in the room, cold and still. I lay there for a while, but it was plain that I could not fall back to sleep. The dream's details did not go hazy as one might expect. The feeling of being inside Ameki's head never left me. I felt as if I had really been dreaming for months, feeling the sickness and decay of Ameki's body well up inside me.
I lit the candle in my lantern and packed up my tent. There was one area I had not checked, and that was the dungeons. I had been afraid even in the daylight hours to venture below the castle itself, but now with the darkness all around, there was no stopping me. As I descended down the cold stone steps, I could feel the close atmosphere. There was hardly a sound, merely the padding of my own footpaws. With only the candle for light, silhouetted shapes loomed out at me in the dark. I crept past racks of rusted weapons, chains hanging from the ceiling, and all the old devices of torture. The dungeons were more like caverns, with the weight of the castle pressing down upon them.
The fire had not spread down into the deepest recesses of the labyrinthine dungeons. I found my way down to the cells themselves. I dreaded walking past each door, so sure that at any moment some ghostly beast would call at me from behind the bars. Yet no such apparition presented itself, and I made my way through the murky passageway undisturbed. The passage twisted again, and I found myself in a small storage room.
As I examined the contents of the crates and barrels of the room, I pondered again the dream. Had it been the product of my imagination, or some kind of vision of the past? If it was, what had brought it to my mind? I myself had never before displayed any sign of the powers of the seer. Yet something told me that it was not the mere fantasies of my mind.
I closed my eyes and relived the dream once more in my minds eye. I could feel Redrick carrying Ameki up the mountain path. I recalled his sorrow at seeing his younger brother so distraught, and his determination to make Ameki smile again. What had happened to make Ameki so sick in body and soul? They had removed all the old memories of their father. The furniture and the portraits were taken away, and they had even given the walls a fresh coat of paint.
My eyes opened. A fresh coat of paint. Such a curious little detail. As my eyes grew accustomed to seeing in the dark, I saw I had come to a stop before one of the barrels in the corner. Painted on the side was the phrase, Paint - White. I stared at the barrel for a time, a frown on my face as I contemplated the contents of the storage room. They had coated the castle's walls in white paint. Suddenly, the answer came to me, and I recoiled in shock. I was now face-to-face with the real culprit itself!
I realised with a sickening lurch that the storage room had held these barrels of lead paint in them for centuries now. It had no doubt deteriorated, and infiltrated every nook and cranny of this place. In my haste to flee the storage room, I dropped my lantern. The candle flickered and went out, and the breaking glass shattered the silence. My nerve broke, and I ran, arms outstretched blindly, scraping against the walls as I belted down the passageway.
I felt my way along the walls, trying in desperation to find the way out, and hearing a noise resonating through the hall. It was quiet at first, but it became louder, more insistent, a wretched, sobbing moan of a beast in anguish. I felt my blood going cold, the sweat on my body freezing over and making me shiver. The mournful cries were ringing in my ears, and I fell to my knees, crawling along the stone floor, sure that any moment Ameki's tearful ghost would find me.
I crawled from that poisoned, black pit and collapsed on the landing, trying to catch my breath. I knew I had to look behind me, to see if the sobbing creature had followed me. Slowly, trembling, I rolled over and gazed back down into the abyss. The black rectangular gap of the dungeon's entrance was silent and empty. I put my paws to my face, and felt something wet on my cheeks. The sobbing had in fact been coming from me, for I had realised the cause of Ameki's tragic demise, and I wept for him.
In his bid to make a fresh start, Ameki had the whole castle repainted. The walls had been coated in a clean, white paint to cover the old burgundy-red hue. At the time, the effects of using white lead as paint were little understood. They had wanted to make Ameki smile again, but instead they had lined the walls with poison, and turned the castle into a grand torture chamber that sapped away the minds and bodies of its inhabitants. And now, it was their tomb.
Part Eight: The Castle is Silent Again
I waited in the master bedroom tower for the sunrise. I stood on the balcony, breathing the fresh air. It must have happened slowly, the poison invisibly seeping into them. The slaves had lived outside of the main premises, which explained why they had not shared in the insanity of the Dornsturms. I felt a serene calm descend over me, as I felt the mystery was at last put to rest.
Yet on this smooth surface of calm, there was one ripple that disturbed my repose. I had dreamed of Ameki's symptoms before knowing the cause of his madness. How then had this vision come to me? With this thought in mind, I felt far less comfortable standing in the same room in which he had perished in flame. I felt I was trespassing, and the castle wanted me gone.
I fled the castle at first light, when I could at last see the mountain pathway. The snow had swept clean my footsteps from my journey up here, and I knew that once I had left the castle, my tracks would once again disappear. It would be as if nobeast had visited the ancient castle at all. I did not stop in the village of Anhalt, instead choosing to put as much distance between me and the castle as possible.
When I reached the ridge where I had first seen the castle, I turned, and gave it one final glance. I saw the tower's black silhouette lit by the rising sun. The mist was seeping over the jagged rocks and along the mountain slopes. It enveloped the tower, and that was the last time I gazed upon Castle Dornsturm.